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An Injury to One: Why we all need to stand for migrant workers' rights

by May 1st Movement

Mural by Gilda Monreal at the Agricultural Workers Alliance (AWA) Support Centre in Leamington, ON.
Mural by Gilda Monreal at the Agricultural Workers Alliance (AWA) Support Centre in Leamington, ON.
M1M marching on May Day, International Workers’ Day
M1M marching on May Day, International Workers’ Day

(first published in Basics)

When he arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport 3 years ago, Santiago Escobar saw a large group of people who caught his attention.  From their clothing, resembling the traditional clothing of indigenous peoples of Central America, he assumed they were Latin Americans.  Having just arrived in Canada on a work permit himself, his curiosity got the better of him and he went to speak to people in the group.

“It was not easy to strike up a conversation because they were intimidated, one of them told me they are farm workers and they were forbidden to talk to strangers,” said Escobar.  “When I asked him who had been forbidden this, he chose to keep walking and our conversation ended there. I felt a lot of mistrust and fear from the worker.”

Often working for minimum wage in agricultural fields, hotels, restaurants, slaughterhouses, factories, and households as caregivers, these workers also must pay for their flights, insurance, and housing while most receive no payment for overtime nor rest during the holidays.  Moreover, since their job security is primarily at the discretion of the employer, many workers endure further hardships so as to not run the risk of being sent back.Escobar now works with the Agricultural Workers Alliance in Virgil, Ontario providing services and advocacy for migrant workers there.  Every year, tens of thousands of migrant workers from some 80 countries including Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and the Philippines arrive in Canada on a temporary, seasonal basis. Over the last decade, the number of these workers that enter into Canada has increased from 100,000 to 250,000.

A worker who chose to identified only as Francisco said “fortunately the members of the Support Centre help by taking us to the medical clinics, because if you notify the Patron (master), you run with the risk of being returned to Mexico, as the Patron is not interested in having people sick or not produce what each worker must produce.  Here we come to work and if you cannot work then you are on the next flight back”.

In addition, these workers must pay the numerous income, retirement, social security and workplace safety taxes that a regular worker would pay despite the fact that they are often denied access to many of these benefits. Edward, a Jamaican migrant worker who has been participating in the program for almost 2 decades, was denied Parental Benefits because he did not apply during the time required by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.  ”I do not understand, why after working 19 years within this program, paying all my taxes, my application is denied, no one informed me about the time required, here in Canada nor in Jamaica”.  With this erratic weather, many of the crops have been devastated in southern Ontario.  As a result, hundreds of workers have been sent back without any access to the Employment Insurance that they pay into, or any of the compensation that Ontario farmers receive from the government.

Despite these exploitative conditions, these women and men take out personal loans  to apply and endure in order to earn money for the families they leave behind.  In many of the ‘sender’ countries, the governments have struck these ‘labour export’ agreements with countries like Canada as a way to address high unemployment domestically, as well as a way to bring money into the country in the form of remittances.  In the Philippines for example, remittances which come primarily from overseas Filipino workers account for over 9% of the Gross Domestic Product.

In addition, these governments have continued a reckless subservience to domestic economic policies which favour transnational firms over the people and local producers.

“Before the NAFTA treaty [the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico - ed.], I cultivated my corn fields and had more work in Mexico” said Magdalena Perez, an agricultural worker. “If you invested $1000 you would at least get back $1800. Currently, you can’t even recover $500 because it is cheaper to buy imported U.S. corn,” said Perez. Heavily subsidized US corn was allowed to enter the Mexican market as part of NAFTA.

Over the past year or so, the work done by the Agricultural Workers Alliance/ United Food and Commercial Workers and migrant advocacy organizations such as Justicia for Migrant Workers and MIGRANTE have raised the profile of the plight of these workers and the conditions of their super-exploitation. Tragically, this has not lead to greater protections as evidence by recent deaths of workers including the 11 killed in Hampstead while being driven in unsafe conditions, as well as the deaths of Paul Roach and Ralston White, two Jamaican workers who died while attempting to fix a pump for a vinegar vat at the apple orchard where they worked.

Currently in Ontario, there exists a legal framework that inherently places these workers at risk and makes them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation as well as injury or even death.  In 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled with the Ontario government denying migrant workers the rights to join or form union despite the International Labour Organizations ruling that this constituted a breach of labour and human rights.

We must demand the end to the distinct categorization and regulation of migrant labour designed to keep them in precarious conditions, the guaranteeing of the social benefits that they are entitled and pay into, the right to organize and associate, and clear pathways to residency.  By fighting for the rights of these workers, we are also fighting to ensure that no government is able to lower the bar for all of us.While labour organizations are beginning a campaign to address the issues of workplace rights and dignity, the May 1st Movement and its affiliates reaffirm that the safety and rights of the most vulnerable set of workers including migrants must be on the top of the agenda. Following the cue from the Fraser Institute’s recommendations to shift immigration further towards this labour import model where citizenship and status are used as tools to divide and discipline workers, the Conservative government are openly floating schemes that would incentivize further exploitation by allowing employers to pay migrant workers 15% less than the minimum wage. Not only is this a brazen attack on what little rights migrants workers have, but it is also setting the stage for a pitting of workers – migrant vs. residents – against each other for the withering pool of jobs.  As we sink deeper into this global crisis in capitalism, this will surely feed xenophobic and racist scapegoating in the same way it has in Europe.

While fighting for these necessary reforms to alleviate the condition of these workers, must also be clear that this international phenomenon of labour import and export – the trading and use of women and men as cheap, disposable labour – is an inhumane practice that lines the pockets of the companies and governments involved, while keeping countries poor and workers subjugated.

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